Interview

Life after Skype

Estonian programmer Jaan Tallinn helped create the file-sharing application Kazaa and then the famous video-call system. Now he wants to save the world.

When Skype launched in 2003, it changed communication forever by enabling people to make video calls around the globe for free. One of its original programmers, Jaan Tallinn is now an influential entrepreneur and philanthropist. He co-founded the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk in Cambridge, UK, and the Future of Life Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to anticipate and understand catastrophic threats to human existence.

Technologist: What are “existential risks”?

Jaan Tallinn: They are, for example, the probability that a hydrogen bomb could ignite the atmosphere. Or asteroids: every 10 million to 100 million years, a rock comes along that might be big enough to sterilise the planet.

Artificial intelligence (AI) could pose existential risks because the smartest agent on the planet tends to dominate its environment. We don’t know what could happen or when, but we can reduce our uncertainty by having concrete, mathematical arguments about what could happen with AI.

T. Why are you funding this research?

J. T. Our first goal is to bring more respectability to these issues. We now have a list of very prominent scientists who are interested, and we’re planning to start doing research soon. The question is: what can we do now that could be useful in 50 years?

There’s a growing movement called effective altruism, where people don’t just want to be generous but hope to maximize the impact of their generosity. A significant number of those people end up interested in existential risk because they realize that instead of just helping the current population we should also think about future generations.

T. Are you still involved in tech companies?

J. T. I’m currently investing in 34 start-ups. One of them, Nightingale, is automating the laborious bits of Applied Behaviour Analysis therapy for autism, so you get a track record of what effect it has on a child’s behaviour over time. Another company, Lingvist, is doing automated language learning. They have a machine tutor that studies how you learn and optimizes the teaching for you.

Time is my most precious resource, so I try to co-invest with other people. If I find people I can trust to handle the due diligence, I can save time.

file shalring application AI automation computing fullwidth - Life after Skype

T. Online communication channels have diversified enormously since Skype launched. Will that trend continue?

J. T. There are two reasons for this. One is due to rapid changes in the computing landscape: things that were developed for previous platforms are no longer optimal, so it creates niches for new technologies. The other is that there are jobs now that just didn’t exist 20 years ago, and they require different tools. E-mail and landlines may not be the best way to service those activities. So the real question is how quickly the computing and job landscapes continue to change. If they change fast enough, there will continue to be diversity.

For example, I’m involved with a messaging app called Fleep. Context is really important for communication – it makes it much easier to process messages – so Fleep is developing ways to group conversations with the same people in the same place.

I also want Fleep to shift the work from the readers to the sender. One way is to let the reader provide honest feedback about the urgency of the message. That establishes a reputation system: if someone always marks their messages as high priority it doesn’t count for much, but a high priority message from someone who rarely does that must be really important.

T. How did Estonia become such a hotbed of computing talent?

J. T. It’s a combination of things. Going back to Soviet times, there were one or two scientific institutes that focused on cybernetics, developing AI systems. I was always interested in computers, but behind the Iron Curtain it wasn’t easy to get access to them. When I was in school the parent of one of my schoolmates was looking for bright students to introduce to computing in the evenings, and I was picked. I wrote my first program when I was 14 [Tallinn is now 43].

Later on, Skype became a beacon in Estonia. It made the start-up culture much more prominent and accessible. I sometimes half-jokingly say that everyone knows everyone else in Estonia, so people there might say, “I know those guys who did Skype – if they can do it I can do it”. Over the years, Skype has worked as a boot camp to train a lot of people.

T. Do you think the country’s innovation culture will continue to flourish?

J. T. Estonia is small, so it’s hard to build really big companies there because you just run out of people. One clear benefit of the country’s EU membership is the ability to easily import talent, but there is still a bottleneck.

We also have this unfortunate geographical situation – ask any Russian neighbour, with perhaps the exception of Belarus, and they’re not very happy about where they are. It doesn’t affect day-to-day life, but the news media are very sensitive to what is being said and done in Russia.

Jaan Tallinn (entrepreneur and philanthropist)